- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

SAN ANTONIO, Venezuela This quiet market town tucked against the Colombian border was not ready for it: A carful of gunmen raced in from Colombia and attacked a house with automatic rifles and hand grenades.

They killed the guard and, when police arrived, killed one of them. Then the attackers used back roads to escape back across the border.

"Nothing like this had been seen here before," said Jose Gregorio Hernandez, San Antonio correspondent for La Nacion newspaper. "They're much better armed than the police."

The apparent paramilitary attack this month failed to kill the Colombian guerrilla who was its target but did serve as a reminder for Venezuelans of how the war next door is spilling across the border.

And with newly elected Colombian President Alvaro Uribe planning to escalate the conflict with backing from Washington's multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia, some observers worry that Colombia's war could destabilize not only Venezuela, but also the region.

Mr. Uribe met with President Bush last month seeking additional aid in fighting the 38-year-old civil war.

The violence in Colombia "will affect all of the neighboring nations," particularly Venezuela and Ecuador, predicts retired Venezuelan Gen. Alberto Mueller.

"There is an explosive situation in the whole north Andean region."

Gen. Mueller worries that the border violence could aggravate Venezuela's internal political crisis between supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chavez.

Recently, several Venezuelan campesino leaders have been shot in the border region, killings that Gen. Mueller blames on paramilitary organizations.

Observers say the escalating conflict could also strain relations between the rightist Mr. Uribe, who wants Venezuela as an ally in his war against the guerrillas, and the leftist Mr. Chavez, who once declared his country neutral in the Colombian war but is suspected by his foes of secretly supporting Colombia's Marxist guerrillas.

For their part, Venezuelans have long resented suffering caused by their neighbor's internal conflict.

This year brought many signs of the Colombian war's arrival in Venezuela. In March a Colombian general complained that guerrillas had attacked his troops from Venezuelan soil. Venezuelan officials called him a liar, but reporters who visited the area found what looked like a guerrilla campsite.

The episode undermined Mr. Chavez's credibility before his political foes kidnapped Mr. Chavez, a former paratroop colonel, and held him for three days in April, declaring him overthrown.

In June a group of hooded men appeared on Colombian television and announced the creation of the United Self-Defense Forces of Venezuela (AUV), a Venezuelan version of Colombia's feared paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

AUC leader Carlos Castano, whose extradition on narco-trafficking charges the United States recently requested, has said his fighters are training Venezuelans.

"I don't like getting involved in Venezuelan affairs, but the frontier zone affects both nations," he told El Nacional newspaper in Caracas, Venezuela's capital.

Meanwhile, Venezuela has seen the appearance this year of several shadowy new guerrilla organizations, which many suspect have links to Colombia's two main guerrilla groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).

The most prominent of these new groups are the Popular Liberation Army and the Bolivarian Liberation Forces, which some reports have tied to the Venezuelan government.

"We think [the new guerrilla groups] are actually the FARC or the ELN," said Genaro Mendez, president of the cattle ranchers association of the border state of Tachira.

The war's effects are not limited to Venezuela. In Ecuador a new guerrilla group, calling itself the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Ecuador, apparently linked to the FARC, recently planted two bombs in the coastal city of Guayaquil.

Of course, effects from the Colombian civil war are nothing new for residents of the Venezuelan border. Many ranchers, for example, have long sent the Colombian guerrillas monthly payments to protect themselves against kidnapping. The payments are referred to as "vaccines."

But this year has seen a sharp rise in kidnappings, and a newspaper near the border estimated that a kidnapping took place every three days on average. Many of the victims, Venezuelans believe, are "sold" to Colombian guerrillas or paramilitaries, who have hideouts in which to hold captives for long periods.

"The participation of the Colombian guerrillas has been demonstrated in many cases," said Fernando Villasmil, president of the state legislature of Zulia, on the border with Colombia. Mr. Villasmil said, "The voice of the FARC" radio broadcasts from Venezuelan soil.

The U.S.-backed drug eradication program has not eliminated Colombia's coca farming, but the crop has shifted northward, closer to the Venezuelan border, and the fighting has accompanied it.

This has sent a wave of refugees into Venezuela and increased cultivation of coca and the opium poppies (used to make heroin) in the hills along the border, said Javier Armata, who represents the Yupa Indians in Zulia's legislature.

"The whole range of hills is planted with drugs," said Mr. Armata, who estimated that acreage has almost doubled in two years. He estimated that in the past two years, drug acreage has risen 80 percent on the Venezuelan side.

Despite the wishes of Colombian leaders, Venezuelan soldiers stationed along the frontier are not eager to resume hostilities with the Colombian guerrillas, who took a high toll on Venezuelan border troops in the late 1990s.

Sealing the border, which in many areas consists of a river so shallow a person can wade across it, would be impossible.

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